Review: Poppy + George, Watford Palace Theatre

“If this is indeed where you were heading, then it appears with all success you have arrived”

There’s something rather gorgeous at the heart of Poppy + George, a recognition that even passing acquaintances can leave as lasting impressions as the deepest of friendships; a reminder too that even if a play can be over and done with in a couple of hours, its impact can linger far beyond. So it is for the group of people who find each other in Diane Samuels’ new play for the Watford Palace Theatre, with music by Gwyneth Herbert.

Their safe haven is a warehouse deep in the East End in 1919, where Russian Jewish (with a bit of Chinese) tailor Smith plies his trade and entertains his friends nattily dressed chauffeur George Sampson and Great War veteran Tommy Johns who is trying to resurrect his fading music hall career. Into their world comes Poppy Wright, a Northern girl looking for a fresh start from a life in service, though the love she finds turns out not to be quite what she expected.

For though a romance does develop between Poppy and George, hence the title!, Samuels makes us care about all the relationships in the play. At a time of such seismic change after WWI, the whole world seems in flux and it seems opportunities and challenges lie hand in hand round every corner. So as women seize the initiative with the Suffragette movement, sweeping up the newly politicised Poppy, the flipside of increasing confidence sees Tommy’s wife repeatedly tip him out on the street.

Tommy’s female-impersonator music hall numbers play in but also break up the scenes (a neat nod to this venue’s historical origins) and Herbert’s music is ideally suited to the purpose, wittily and achingly performed by Mark Rice-Oxley. Jacob Krichefski’s Smith is largely inscrutable but undeniably warm of heart as he expresses himself through his costumery; and Rebecca Oldfield’s George emerges as a truly fascinating character as his layers are revealed in all their complicated emotion.

And at the heart of them all, Nadia Clifford’s Poppy is just wonderful, a warm-hearted breath of fresh air who gently challenges, and is challenged, by the fluctuating notions of gender and identity that Samuels depicts so sensitively. As the play reaches is end and its characters variously scatter, there’s an abiding sense that they will remember each other for as long as they live, such is the subtle profundity of their connection here. Delicately gorgeous.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 27th February

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